Imagining Together

11 November 2019

Through arts and creative experiences, babies and young children develop a sense of their own agency and learn about their rights. As part of our campaign Making My Mark, Starcatchers’ board member Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson reflects on the importance of ensuring children can experience theatre from the earliest possible age – not because it will help them when they are older, but because they are audiences now with their own imaginations, ideas, knowledge and able to enjoy art as much as adults do.

Theatre for the very young is unusual. We all have preconceptions about music aimed at babies, such as nursery rhymes, but the idea of performing a play, a ballet or an opera to the youngest children is still surprising.

And yet thousands of performances take place all over the world, often challenging the popular view of babies as unsophisticated or unruly. I’ve sat amidst one-year-olds to experience a show in almost total darkness; I’ve seen my daughter’s eyes widen as an opera singer belted out arias right next to us; I’ve clambered around tree-trunks with a group of toddlers towards the beautifully lit centre of a labyrinth. Theatre for Early Years can often be the most avant-garde, experimental, gorgeous kind of theatre.

As a drama researcher at the University of Edinburgh, my own interest is in the artists who make work for babies. What drives them? What keeps them excited about creating theatre for an audience who can’t applaud yet? Why do they do it? One of the key findings from my PhD was that most artists go through a sort of conversion experience, where they start out with no knowledge at all of the existence of baby theatre, and then have an epiphany when they first see it live on stage. Eventually, they become proud ambassadors for all kinds of art for babies. In most cases, these artists are inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially Article 31, which recognises the right of the child to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. They believe that babies are audiences from the moment of birth, able to enjoy art on the same level as adults.

However, the majority of research carried out into theatre for young audiences revolves around the supposed ‘benefits’ of art for wellbeing, for development or for education. In the USA and UK in particular, infants are seen as audiences of the future, and so the only reason to offer performances to them is in order for them to gain some benefit that will help them when they are older. Rather than celebrating the intrinsic benefits of art, performances are intended to educate babies, such as giving them a head-start in language-learning. This can lead to a vicious circle where funders and families favour the kind of didactic, moralistic and simplistic shows more commonly seen in the 70s and 80s, when the goal was to show children how to grow up as good citizens. These performances aren’t truly aimed at children – they’re directed at parents and nursery staff, acting as the gatekeepers to culture. For me, these performances often aren’t really theatre at all, but a lesson delivered in the shape of a show.

Instead of thinking of very young children as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with knowledge and morals, we can think about them as imaginative beings with their own ideas and knowledge of the world, even from birth. Artists often invite parents and babies into their rehearsals to see what holds their attention – I would go so far as to suggest that the babies actually guide the performance process to an extent, with their laughter, transfixed stares and even cries telling theatre-makers where to push further and where to pull back. Together they make a community of tiny co-creators.

It’s also important to remember, as my colleague Dr Emma Miles has said, that “going to the theatre [is] always an event beyond simply performance… it begins the moment the children set off on their journey to the theatre, and lasts as long as the performance remains in their imagination.” To the very young, everything is new and strange – the bus ride to the theatre can be just as magical as the show itself, and if they choose to recreate moments from that show later, the play is still living in them, firing their imaginations and expanding their understanding of the world around them.

We take children to the theatre not because it’s good for them, but because they have a right to enjoy art just as much as us adults. We take them because we need their imagination and openness and honesty to complete the experience. We take them because theatre, perhaps more than any other art-form, is about being together and imagining together.

Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson manages the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and is a Starcatchers board member. He holds a PhD in Drama from the University of St Andrews, and has studied at Emory University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. His research interests include theatre for early years, relaxed performance and neurodiverse arts, and digital technologies in performance.